Wednesday, February 22, 2012

Spelunk-A-Story: Overall Story: Elric Saga

Hi! Welcome to  Spelunk-A-Story, where I'll be reviewing my favorite sci-fi/fantasy novel series (and some of my not-so-favorite series) from a writer's standpoint to determine what makes them great. I'll be exploring all the nooks and crannies of each story, shining light on their darkest secrets and brightest moments, to help other authors and myself craft better books. To the Book Cave!

Well, folks, I've finished, extensively edited and published my novel, The Pathos of Rowan Jun, on Kindle. Find the final, finished version here. It's a big, scary step that took a lot of work, aggravation, and hair-pulling that I told about here, on my Tamara Henson Studios entry about self-publishing. The perfectionist in me knows that there are always improvements to be made. So I'm still reviewing my favorite, best books to see how my story stands up to the awesomeness of past series I have purchased.

To be fair, I never considered myself a fan of hardcore fantasy, until someone shoved this book under my nose. The author's name is Michael Moorcock. Elric of Melnibone is the first in an epic dark fantasy series, and was published back in 1972 (with versions of the character and story from the early 60s on). I was 9 years away from being born. Still, I can't imagine never reading it! I'll be touching on the overall story from all six "core" books, as they represent the beginning, climax and ultimate end of Elric's journey.


My job back in 2004 was boring, almost mindlessly simple. Getting paid equals good. Being bored equals not good. Larry, a coworker and downright precious human being with awesome long hair, a quick wit and a nerd level that surpassed even mine brought me books to pass the time. I read most of the original Dungeons and Dragons comic book thanks to him, now that I think about it. :D He asks if I like dark fantasy. I cringe at fantasy but was suckered in by "dark". So he brought me the first three-book-collection of the Elric Saga. And a couple days later, he had to bring me the second three-book-collection that finalized the core series.

The world and physics are incredibly complex, hinging on two constants: the concepts of inter-dimensional travel via the multiverse, and the Eternal Champion-- different versions of the same person born in many different dimensions and linked together in the eternal battle between Chaos and Law. *sigh* This one may give me a headache... Elric is one facet of the Eternal Champion. He's the thin-blooded albino emperor of an old civilization who artificially maintains his strength with drugs. His fatal flaw in his society? A conscience. Yep. To those he rules, that's a weakness even worse than his physical issues. Yet he's a super-special-awesome-powerful-sorcerer who calls on magic, elementals, spirits, and even the Lords of Chaos to aid him. And dragons... And then boy meets sword, and it's all downhill from there... And ALL awesome!



Elric's story isn't intended for teens, per se. There is violence and lots of it, plus the writing style is very dense. But Elric's conscience is the driving force in a very internalized type of story. And with great conscience comes great running away! That's right... Enter the catalyst for an epic quest to save all existence! Or destroy all existence...

1. *sigh* My first what-the-heck-and-WHY? moment involved what I call the Sword Sphincter, or "The Pulsing Cavern", where Elric quests to retrieve the fated twin rune-blades that will end or save the world... Stormbringer and Mournblade! (No one has ever given weapons more bad-ass names. I challenge you to prove me wrong!) Also, the "singing" black blades suck out your soul and use your life force for energy, sending the wielder into a blood rage of power...

2. After he accidentally kills his betrothed with Stormbringer (Oops! No soul for her!), Elric leads the Young Kingdoms in the destruction of Imrryr, the only surviving city of his empire. Why? He thinks it was time to put an end to the horrible atrocity of their existence.

3. A point of contention: Why is Elric such a passionate, energetic lover if he can barely walk when the effect of his drugs runs low? Hmph. Just a curiosity...

4. I have decided that the concepts of Elric's world, the epic resonance, the single character of Elric, and the swords are all that really matter to me. It's what I took from the whole thing. And that's okay by me. The story is as expected: Quest, quest, quest, epic battle for creation, end of battle... And then the end happens. But I don't want to tell you the end! I won't tell you the end! You go cheat and read it on Wikipedia. But I'll not ruin it!


Now this is where I determine what works specifically in this story, so we can all go hand-in-hand down the narrow road toward writing success!

1. The writing is dense, oftentimes superfluous, and verbose. His vocabulary trumps my vocabulary by a long shot. Sometimes it sinks into a dull drone and I say "Wake me up when we get to the plot!" Don't get me wrong. The writing is good.  The story is woven so thoroughly into my mind that those words had to be the reason why. I'm gonna blame two things here: My attention span is different from when I first read this. (Less disposable time, too.) AND the cultural differences in location and time period led the man to write very good prose as opposed to simply marketable prose. (I cringe and compare the well-composed writing in Harry Potter to the Sparkle-Stalker-Swill in Twilight.)

And then there's the dialogue. Boy, do we know we're in a different world! It's unnatural, forced, flowery, overly ceremonial sounding (when there's no ceremony going on) and everyone talks like that. It's as if everyone has the same voice. I can't even bring myself to cite examples. It will suffice to say that the dialogue lends itself to rereading, oftentimes more than once, to get the meaning.

Elric's internal musings eventually just sound like a soul-wounded teenager struggling through the void of life-wrenching nothingness that has arisen to drag them down into the depths of Hell! Yes. Elric's an emo kid. At least he has real reasons for those musings. I let him off the hook, in that case.

2. Like Dragonsong in my previous post, the Elric Saga follows a formulaic plot. It's that epic fantasy underdog unlikely unwilling destined hero fighting for the fate of the universe plot. Things happen in a villain-of-the-week kind of way, and then the story ends leaving you feeling kind of forlorn. The ending doesn't have to be happy or sad. It just has to be justified by events and world-knowledge available in the text. But it's okay, because the physics explain away that forlorn feeling. If two stories equal a pattern, then let it be known that most fiction is formulaic!

3. The sorcery is thoroughly described and palpable, which is a rare thing in fantasy. The "science" of it is justifiable and based on pacts with inter-dimensional beings. I still randomly shout "Blood and souls for my Lord Arioch!"

4. Because of all these books and their good demonstrations of the logic of inter-dimensional travel, I find myself discussing the multiverse like it's a possibility rather than a loose, unsupported theory. :) I hate when a story paradox isn't explained in some way. With Moorcock's multiverse, as far-fetched as it tends to be, I feel as if I understand it.

5. The multiverse theory is a PERFECT way to bring in legends, myths and anything else you wanna pull out of your rear to tell the most varied story possible. And for even more plausibility, you'll just slap an archaic or original name on that legend, myth or story and voila! It'll slip right past all but the most learned readers. And those will either scoff at your efforts or applaud your ingenuity, smug in the fact that they "got it." "Getting it" took me out of the story completely. That's why this review is kinda sparse. I like to drift in this world, to see where it'll take me, and I'd like you to do the same.


1. I don't want to write in his style. I have a very sparse style that doesn't lend itself well to integrating his methods. I do love reading his work. I believe it's good exercise for my brain. His level of epic demands such a style, though. As I said before, I value his concepts, Elric himself, the epic resonance, and the swords. All other things fall away.

2. Formulaic plotting works, if the formula is strong and the characters and worlds are awesome. I feel like Elric makes the story. The words just tell us things about him. And that is a lesson in great character development! Maybe all those internal monologues are to blame...

3. Elric is an emo kid who REALLY has the weight of the universe on his shoulders, so it's okay that he dwells a bit. Whiny with no reason would kill the story and credibility.

4. Not much changes regarding common terminology. An emperor is still an emperor. A throne (albeit made of one big ruby) is still just a throne. Elric's story is not taking place on another planet. It's just down the moonbeam roads, if you know where to go. Another dimension. And we're attached to it. It's a great storytelling device already, so there's no need to change basic terminology. A day's a day. A sword's a sword... unless that sword is Stormbringer!

5. Flowery dialogue is the single-most disconcerting thing about the books.

6. A Sword Sphincter by any other name is still just a Sword Sphincter!

I welcome your comments and novel-review suggestions! Thanks for reading. Until next time, "Blood and souls for my Lord Arioch!"


2nd Shelf, Middle: Begins my Elric stash

Wednesday, January 25, 2012

Spelunk-A-Story: First in a Series-- Dragonsong

Hi! Welcome to the inaugural post of Spelunk-A-Story, where I'll be reviewing my favorite sci-fi/fantasy novel series (and some of my not-so-favorite series) from a writer's standpoint to determine what makes them great. I'll be exploring all the nooks and crannies of each story, shining light on their darkest secrets and brightest moments, to help other authors and myself craft better books. To the Book Cave!

I'm less than a month away from publishing my debut young adult sci-fi adventure novel, The Pathos of Rowan Jun, which is the first in a series. (Read the blurb on my website here: , and please excuse the mess. My site's being rebuilt as I type!) I've decided to review a few of the best first-novels-in-a-series to see how my story stands up to the awesomeness of past series I have purchased.

Given the purpose of this blog, and the recent passing of my favorite author, I couldn't imagine beginning with anything but Anne McCaffrey's 1976 young adult novel Dragonsong. I know it's not the first in the Dragonrider's of Pern series. (I'll get around to Dragonflight later on...) But it is her first Pern novel geared directly toward teens.


I grabbed this book off a shelf at the library while picking up romance novels for Mom. It went like this-- disdain, disdain, grody, yuck, disdain, Mom's already read this smut, disdain... HOLY CRAP! WHAT IS THIS??? "Dragon" in the title. Check. Beautiful, haunting stylized art cover, double-check. I borrowed this novel-- with this exact cover, in fact my FAVORITE cover-- from the library a half-dozen times before they lost it. I now own one newer "reading" copy of Dragonsong, one hardcover of the Harper Hall Trilogy, and this paperback version (dug out of a pile at some vendor's mall, along with Dragonsinger) with the awesome cover art. So that's it... Poor reshelving of this paperback sci-fi novel in the romance section equals an introduction to a world that hasn't yet released me from its magic.

To those unfamiliar with Anne McCaffrey's Pern, it's a world where genetically-engineered dragons link telepathically to one person (I have said that I soared with dragons long before Eragon's Paolini was a twinkle in his daddy's eye) their whole lives for one purpose: to fight an off-world spore known as Thread (*sigh* Yes, Thread...). To live outside the protective stone walls of Holds is tantamount to death, since Thread is voracious in contact with organic matter. The society is striated and honor-bound because of this threat, and everyone has a place and knows it, to the point of obtuse reasoning to protect that honor.


Every teenager feels put-upon by the world. The world is, in fact, picking on them exclusively. Everyone else has it easy by comparison. In fact, everyone in the world wishes you the worst. But it's not FAIR! So the only way to escape it is to... escape it! To run away! Menolly, the fifteen year old heroine of Dragonsong, leaves the safety of her father's Hold and escapes into the danger of the wilderness.

1. Menolly's self-pity, escape, and free-living reads like a montage from Island of the Blue Dolphins. With dragons and firelizards. Not a bad thing. It really lingers in the survivalist part of my brain like that other book.
2. Firelizards as companions... Privileged girl! One upmanship on the boys...
3. Her rescue from Thread is pretty cool.
4. Her struggle to find a place in a new society while trying to keep her past and love of music a secret rings true to the character and to the reader. The emotions are real and very human.
5. Her first Impression attendance-- awesome, evocative description. I can still see it in my head!
6. My one point of contention that resonates: That darn closing quote from Menolly sounds unnatural, even among the varied speaking styles of the Pernese. "Oh, gladly will I come, Master Robinton..." She might as well bat her eyes like Scarlett O'Hara. She went from empowered musical recruit who often killed and skinned her own dinner to dainty Southern Belle in ONE line!!!


Now this is where I determine what works specifically in this book, so we can all go hand-in-hand down the narrow road toward writing success!

1. The writing is superb! McCaffrey writes with a vocabulary and structure at least a couple notches above the level of her intended audience. This doesn't mean she loses the reader. The reader learns from reading as much as from the story. Some readers will have to go back and re-read some lines. Other readers will not. The content transitions are handled expertly, with no confusing jumps in time or logic. But all readers will get too sucked in by the story to worry much about the writing. That is how you know the writing is good. It's not author-indulgent (until that last quote, dang it!) and self-conscious.

2. Follows the basic structure and formula of a coming-of-age adventure, from beginning to end, but doesn't feel contrived. Let's see... A teen girl is driven by her family-- who doesn't understand her and perhaps even mistreats her-- to run away from home. She learns that she can survive without them, gets over her self-pity and finds independence and maturity on her own. She finally nurtures her dreams, realizing that she has something unique within her, some underlying power that only she can offer the world. Then she, by sheer will or force of luck, sets out to forge a path toward personal greatness, with her newfound strengths paving the way. She struggles on the way, but finds herself AND the place where she belongs in the end! Pretty straightforward formula shared by many books. And her writing is relate-able to her intended age groups. She's not speaking over their heads or preaching to them. She's reaching out as the main character and getting it right. To name names of formulaic stories, each Harry Potter book plot and the entire Twilight Series, since it took four books for Bella to get useful, but still...

3. World and society are not full of creation-holes. In trying to remain objective, pretending like I've not read almost all other Pern novels, I realize that even our heroine doesn't know everything about the world in which she lives. Why would she? She's fifteen! Mostly through her "backward" knowledge, memories, perceptions and actions, we see the world of Pern outside her home as a magical place of possibilities. Her father's Hold (the equivalent of backwoods Kentucky, if I may... since I live here!) was so isolated that she thought girls weren't even allowed in her dream profession! Making the protagonist fairly naive and ignorant (except for her expert knowledge in survival and music) was a wonderful way of introducing the readers to Pern. We as readers knew little less than the protagonist.

4. Two of the most basic devices to immerse a reader in a new world are terminology and dialogue. McCaffrey coined new, believable terms for simple everyday words that had "Earth" equivalents. Ahem... a "sevenday" is a week. Yep. I cried a little with that one. But a year is a "Turn." Not as bad. "Klah" is an onomatopoeia word (like a sigh) for a cinnamon/chocolate-tasting bark restorative drink like coffee. She also replaces English words for various other foods and animals ("runnerbeast"= "horse") with other, often generic, terms. But it serves the purpose of total immersion. The only thing that will rip you out of another world more quickly than terminology is inconsistent dialogue. The dialogue in Dragonsong can be stilted at times, when people are speaking in public or official meetings, but is often personable and natural, if a little "higher" than common dialogue in, say, the U.S. Except for that last quote of the book, when it's just silly! Rawr!


1. Anne McCaffrey kicks my butt at writing. Her vocabulary and structure, her support system of readers, her extensive experience (practice makin' perfect, and all that) and her particular style of resonance make for  a level I have yet to achieve. Because I'm not at this level, I'm not exactly sure how to tell anyone exactly how to reach that level. I have noticed that in each draft I write, my writing gets better. It should get better. I should read more widely to allow those structural influences to seep into my subconscious so I can make my writing awesome, eventually. So my advice to myself and any other writers is simple: 1. Write daily. 2. Read daily. 3. Keep notes. 4. Write some more...

2. There's nothing wrong with a formulaic story structure, as long as that structure is disguised with good writing and natural, organic story development that softens the edges of a straightforward outline. The Pathos of Rowan Jun is loosely based on the above formula I wrote, because it's about a teenage boy finding his place in a foreign society. Make your outlines. They help guide the story. But outlines are just a skeleton. Add the organs that keep the world alive in the background. Add the muscles that motivate your characters, moving them through the world. And treat the events in a story like food for your book-creature, because the events should help your main characters grow and develop. Let the story flow organically, regardless of your finely-tuned outline. You'll be surprised at some of the characters who emerge, some of the things that happen. Worry about rambling later. It is true that anything that doesn't further the book-creature's growth will kill it like poison. But save that for the editing process...

3. All-knowing, experienced protagonists are no fun. They shut us out of the sci-fi or fantasy world. Why would they muse over something they already know? Throwing an inexperienced, somewhat ignorant (not stupid, mind you) character in a new situation makes a plot interesting. This device is the essence of any young adult adventure novel, right?

4. Statement still stands: Two of the most basic devices to immerse a reader in a new world are terminology and dialogue. When dialogue is consistently fresh and different, and common terminology is skewed in a believable way, the story transports the reader. I'll admit that my novel's dialogue is very natural unless a character is obeying codes of honor, even though the story takes place on a different planet. I'll admit, also, that I don't change many common terms because that planet is a dumping ground for cross-universe travel. It's people have picked up some habits and terms from many cultures over the generations. But as I do a final polish, I'll determine if those habits and terms are distracting. And then... gulp... I'll cut and change them!

5. The final goal of writing should be marketability, if you plan on selling it. Ignore this goal if you just want to see your book in print. Vanity publishing and print-on-demand on the small scale is perfect for you. But I want to sell stories. And I'm doing it through self-publishing-- with eBooks, print-on-demand, and other services. If a product isn't as good as it can get, it won't sell well. True of any product, especially books. Books are not just financial investments. They're time investments. Time is worth more than money in today's society. And since the novels I review are worth my time and money, I believe there is a firm lesson to be learned from their pages.

I welcome your comments and novel-review suggestions! Thanks for your time investment. I hope you've learned as much as I did!


A small nook within The Book Cave